Monday, 29 February 2016

“Rere”: reduplicated relations

First published 8 February 2016 @ sólo algunas palabras

In Mandarin Chinese, reduplication is a very common feature. Its function is to create an informal, less direct or more cute version of a word with the same meaning. For example, 謝謝 xièxie, “thanks”, is a reduplicated xiè. However, when it comes to naming your relations, it could well be that these apparently reduplicated words came first and then got shortened, just like English “ma” and ‎“pa” are short versions of ‎“mama” and ‎“papa”.

Now mama, papa, baba, dada etc. are babble words, something that babies all over the world tend to produce without thinking about their parents and other relatives. (How on earth Finns got to use äiti and isä, is anyone’s guess. Here’s my own guess: Finnish is derived from Elvish, not the other way round, and elvish babies never babble.) What I find interesting about Mandarin is that there are different babble words for different kinds of brothers, sisters, uncles and grandparents. Which is logical, if you think of it. For example, an older brother and a younger brother often have nothing in common. Calling them simply “brothers” is just silly.

Han charactersPinyinMeaningEtymology
trad.爸爸bàbadad, papaFrom ‎“dad” formed by reduplication
trad.媽媽māmamom, mum, mamaFrom ‎“mum”
trad.哥哥gēgeolder brotherFrom ‎“elder brother”
trad.弟弟dìdiyounger brotherFrom ‎“younger brother”
trad.姐姐jiějieolder sisterFrom ‎“elder sister, young lady”
trad.妹妹mèimeiyounger sisterFrom ‎“younger sister”
trad.舅舅jiùjiumother’s brother, uncleFrom ‎“mother’s brother, uncle”
trad.叔叔shūshufather’s younger brother, uncleFrom ‎“father’s younger brother, uncle”
trad.奶奶nǎinaipaternal grandmother, gramma, grannyFrom ‎“milk; woman’s breasts”
trad.爺爺yéyefather’s father, paternal grandfather, granddadFrom ‎“father, grandfather”
trad.寶寶bǎobǎobabyFrom ‎“treasure, precious”

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